REVIEW The Serpent (S1 E2/8)

At the end of the first episode of BBC One’s glossy, cinematic and hyper-stylised retelling of the story of serial killer Charles Sobhraj, I wondered if it could stretch the story out for eight episodes. I also wondered if the series was going to be more style over substance because that first episode was so full of crash zooms, retro-stylings, funky 70s music and a bleached-out colour palette it looked more like a fashion advert than anything else.

As it turned out, that first episode was merely a taster of what was to come – the bright, colourful entreé before the main course. It was a scene-setter, designed to provide a look at how glamorous life could be with Sobhraj, and what life could be in 1970s Bangkok, with all its colour, clouds of dope smoke and tie-dyed bonhomie.

This episode, on the other hand, opened the door to the other side of the story, and it made the series and the story all the better for it.

Gone were the crash zooms and stylised shots, and in came the menace, and the study of manipulation and psychopathy any good serial killer drama needs to establish to be taken seriously.

Serial killers provide a vicarious bogeyman for the audience to boo and hiss at, but as an audience, we also want to know why these killers kill.

In episode two, a lingering question was answered: why did Sobhraj’s lover and accomplice Marie-Andrée Leclerc stay with him and let him get away with, literally, murder?

Marie-Andrée’s story really came to the fore in this instalment and, with it, we began to understand the power and seduction of what Charles Sobhraj was offering.

Escaped from Quebec and from a broken family relationship, Marie-Andrée fell for Sobhraj’s good looks and compliments. He kept telling her she was beautiful and that he sensed that she was not able to be her real self. This flattery got him everywhere, but as soon as they were established as a couple she began to see what she had got herself into – there were quiet threats of violence and classic manipulation techniques, but also a lack of the kind of intimacy she craved.

She knew it, and we knew it – he just wanted her because he needed something from her.

And yet, as the high life began to take hold, she became thoroughly seduced to the point she could compartmentalise his obvious psychopathy because he gave her what she had always wanted – status, acceptance, worldly goods, and to feel part of something special. You could tell that the way she sashayed around the pool at Sobhraj’s famous Bangkok parties imbued with the kind of confidence the old Marie-Andrée just did not have.

As we saw Sobhraj develop his modus operandi – poisoning – the jewels and money rolled in, and even when she knew her lover and Ajay had killed Teresa, even when Sobhraj’s mistress introduced herself and even when Wim and Lena were being murdered in the room next door (she held up a radio to her ear to drown out the screams), she could still block everything else.

As she herself said in her diary: Marie-Andrée could not forgive, but Monique (her new identity) could.

It was a grimly fascinating study, and a much-needed anchor for a series that got darker very quickly.

Elsewhere, idealistic Dutch diplomat Herman was getting closer to the truth, when it was evident that the police and other consular services couldn’t give a fig. With the help of the irascible and reluctant Belgian diplomat Paul Siemons (Tim McInnerny, as good as ever) he had miraculously found a lead – Nadine, a member of the Sobhraj coterie and a concerned friend of Marie-Andrée, had gone to the British consulate to make accusations of fraud and murder against Sobhraj.

Naturally, she was disregarded.

So not only did we have a fascinating character study of Marie-Andrée (with a great performance from Jenna Coleman, complete with French dialogue), but also some creeping procedural elements. It was a heady brew, and one that turned The Serpent from a potential confection into a must-watch.

Paul Hirons

Rating: 4 out of 5.


The Serpent is shown in the UK on BBC One and BBC iPlayer

7 Comments Add yours

  1. Elizabeth Macpherson says:

    Although I have watched the series, I like to read your reviews. I’m glad you have changed your opinion after watching the 2nd episode.


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